Chhattisgarh Assembly polls 2018: Bastar outcome crucial for BJP, Congress

Road to Development: An ongoing road construction work in the Naxal-infested belt of Bastar
With a Nikon camera at the picturesque location of world-famous Chitrakot Fall, in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, Pramod Kumar Mourya is desperately looking for visitors. A snap in front of India’s widest fall fetches him Rs 30.

In his early twenties, Mourya comes from the area, which has an unhealthy reputation. His village in the interior is Naxal-infested and is cut off from the mainstream of society. Despite all hindrances, he has developed impressive communication skills.

Belonging to the pocket where people walk barefoot, Mourya has been effectively doing business in the tourist hub. Communicating succinctly with visitors, he instantly displays the album that exhibits his clicking styles. Most are convinced and do a snap. 

“The daily earning is somewhere between Rs 250 and 300,” Mourya said. During the peak tourist season, which is winter, it goes up four- to five-fold. But the business is now sinking, he said. The smartphones are making a big difference. 

Mourya remains unflustered. Not even when a major steel project that could have helped boost his business and generate direct and indirect jobs for youths like him slipped away from the vicinity. 

Just 9 km from Chitrakote, Lohandiguda is a sleepy village where Tata Steel was getting up a mega project that could have changed the socio-economic conditions of the Bastar region. The company inked a memorandum of understanding with the Chhattisgarh government in 2005 to set up a Rs 195-billion greenfield integrated plant.

The project involved acquiring 2,043 hectares in 10 villages for the plant, which proposed to create 5.5 million tonnes of steel per annum. Land acquisition started in 2008-09. Of the total area, 1,764.610 hectares was private and owned by 1,707 farmers.

Forest produce, not industry, remains the major contributor to the economy of Bastar

Since the company could not acquire the land directly from farmers, the local administration was doing the job. Instead, Tata Steel deposited Rs 690 million on account of compensation to the land losers. After acquiring the land, the state government would have allotted it to the company.

In all, 1,165 farmers took the compensation and Rs 420 million was disbursed. The acquisition is still on paper though the villagers have got big sums. Neither has the land been demarcated nor possession taken.

In the meantime, the iron-ore mine allotted to Tata Steel in the Bailadilla Hills of Dantewada district hit the buffers. The company failed to complete prospecting in time and the lease was cancelled.  The mine has 108 million tonnes of high-grade steel-making raw material, which Tata Steel had planned to feed its Bastar plant. But the threat from the Naxalites prevented the company from entering the area. In July 2016, the company officially announced dropping the project.

Tata Steel has gone from Bastar. What is left is the debate. While the opposition rakes up the issue and makes it a major poll plank, the ruling BJP plays it down. And so is Mourya.

(It would have been good had the company come, but if it hadn’t it does not matter),” Mourya, whose parents earn by collecting forest produce, says. Many in the area prefer the same neutral stand, which has baffled the Congress.

The party is pulling all the stops to make it a major election issue as the region goes to the polls in the first phase of elections on November 12. Besides Bastar’s 12 constituencies, polling will be held in six assembly segments of Rajnandgaon district in the first round.

The outcome in Bastar will be crucial for both the parties as the BJP has lost its grip on tribal votes. The ruling party could get only four seats in 2013 while it had bagged 11 in 2008. While the Congress will try to continue retaining its hold, the BJP is desperate to improve its position. However, the abandoned Tata Steel plan is helping no one. “When the project was announced, people of Bastar were elated because it was a major milestone in the development of the region,” said political analyst Rajendra Vajpayee.

The departure has come as a setback, but it is not a major political issue, he said, adding that even if it had got off the ground, its benefits would be confined only to Chitrakote and not Bastar in general.

Pawan Dubey, also an analyst, agrees. “Interestingly, Tata Steel has never been a poll plank in Bastar,” he said. There is another reason why it is not clicking among the people. The farmers have received the compensation but the land is still in their control. A section of the affected people are still farming and earning, Dubey added. 

The Congress is not giving up easily. “The tribals have been cheated and their land has been taken away,” Deepak Baij, Congress legislator seeking re-election from the Chitrakote constituency, said. They want the land to be returned to the original owners as the project has failed to take shape, he added. Baij is mobilising villagers on the issue.

The BJP is keeping the ball rolling. “The land will be used to bring any other big plant and when it comes, the area will see a new phase of development,” BJP candidate Lacchuram Kashyap said.

After all, it is the development agenda on which the BJP is banking to overcome anti-incumbency.

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